How to Manage Conflict at Work in Seven Steps
You know the feeling.
That swooping, plummeting sensation in your stomach when a problem rears its ugly head in your office. From that first snarky email that has you seeing red, to the whispers in the lunchroom, to building tension every time you pass that certain someone in the hall. Soon, everyone in the office picks up on the vibes, and what was once a small matter turns into a monster of a problem that no one seems to want to do battle. Something’s gotta give!
When predicaments like this pop up at work (as they are bound to do), it can be difficult to know how to manage the conflict. Conflict at work is never pleasant, but it is a consistent, common and natural factor when you’re part of any organization or social group. The typical response is to avoid conflict at all costs, ignore those nagging voices in your head and keep the peace.
But here’s the deal: Hidden in almost every conflict at work is the possibility of an amazing teaching and/or learning opportunity for everyone involved. Where you might at first just see a mess of problems and tangled emotions, there is a possibility to grow and break out of a rut. If you’re in a leadership position and you are not using times of conflict to strengthen your team, you’re missing a wonderful opportunity! We’re going to talk about the best way to leverage these moments and elevate them from an interoffice spat to an important collaborative effort.
Even better, we’re going to break down why conflict happens at work, which is simpler than you would expect! Where does conflict in the workplace come from? Competitive strain, opposing beliefs, struggles for control, differing personalities, egotism, envy, performance problems, pay concerns, a bad hair day, etc… Yes, it seems like just about anything and everything could create conflict, but in fact, the source of most conflict at work comes from only two core issues: Communication and emotions.
We’re going to get you started with a step-by-step blueprint on how to fairly and professionally manage conflict at work. This will be your guide to not only addressing the problem head-on like the rockstar professional you are but also working through each issue with your colleague and following through to give yourself a new ally and collaborator in the future.
Let’s dive in!
An Argument in Favor of Conflict (and How to Manage It Productively)
Concealed, avoided or otherwise ignored, conflicts will likely fester only to grow into resentment, create withdrawal or cause factional infighting within an organization. The natural response to budding problems is damage control. Smile, accept blame, ignore the issue and it all goes away, right?
Spoiler alert: Conflicts at work do not resolve themselves if you ignore them.
Because conflict is a natural component of any organization, the real challenge is not how to conceal or avoid it, but how to deal with it in a constructive way. A conflict that is left unaddressed can lead to smothered creativity, slowdowns in productivity, and worst of all, a wall being built between team members that stifles communication, collaboration and cooperation. Learning the practical skill of conflict management is a crucial part of building productive business relationships and a smoothly functioning team.
The best part is that while conflict is often scary, it can be overwhelmingly healthy and constructive depending on how the problem is resolved. Look at conflict as an opportunity to hear other perspectives and find growth within the workplace. The thing is, teamwork (especially leadership roles) and conflict are a package deal. You can certainly try to minimize conflict at work, but it is an inescapable, human part of the workplace. The skill of recognizing conflict as it grows and changes, pinpointing the exact nature of the conflict, and resolving it in a professional and forward-thinking way will serve you well in your executive assistant role.
How do we recognize and deal with conflict before it grows into that scary monster of a drama? Work disputes can come from anywhere and anyone, but every conflict at work boils down to two core issues:
1. Communication: Thinking back on conflicts you’ve experienced at work, you will most likely realize very quickly that many (if not most) of them resulted from poor communication. Whether it was bad information, a lack of information or misinformation, communication breakdowns can quickly spiral. You may have even received good, thorough information after all, but didn’t know how to proceed. That lack of direction is still an issue with communication, which can certainly lead to conflict as well!
You can control the damage and scope of conflict by maintaining precise, expedient and straightforward communication of information.
2. Emotions: The other usual source of conflict at work is allowing emotions into your decision-making process. Many professionals have valued a personal grievance or their need to be right over the needs of the project and team. Too often have polite, professional disagreements dissolved into heated arguments, ending with two people who refuse to “give in” even if it is no longer constructive. Think of setting your emotions aside as protecting your future, and committing to the overall welfare of your coworkers, company and project.
Keep disagreements from getting personal by focusing on the task at hand and prioritizing team efforts over individuals’ emotions.
Putting Together a Game Plan:
So we’ve talked about the causes and benefits of dealing with problems head-on. All that’s left is to talk about how! To manage conflict at work and maintain professionalism, it helps to have a framework to work through, especially when you’re first trying to call out the issue. We know it’s easier to stick your head in the sand and hope the problem will go away on its own. Getting started on working through conflict is the hardest part by far!
But don’t worry, having a plan always makes it easier to take that first leap into the unknown of conflict resolution. Here is your step-by-step guide to working through workplace disputes:
- Communicate: It might seem obvious, but the first step to successfully managing conflict at work is to acknowledge that there is tension and ask the other person to speak with you. Give them the opportunity to pick a convenient time to meet, and find a place where you will both be comfortable and will not be interrupted.
- Focus on the facts: While it can be tempting to make conflicts personal, involving your emotional experience is a recipe for disaster if you’re trying to have a calm, rational discussion. Choosing a specific moment or event where the conflict arose can help the other person see things from your perspective, and it will feel less like a personal attack on them.
- Active listening: It’s natural to have a strong reaction of “That’s not fair!” or “It didn’t happen like that!” when it’s the other person’s turn to speak. Try to put your immediate reaction on the back burner, and instead listen to what the other person is trying to tell you about their experience. Approach the conversation as a collaboration to work it out, rather than a trial or debate where one of you has to be right and the other wrong. Avoid interrupting the other person, even if you disagree with something they said. Then, when they have finished speaking, rephrase what they said and repeat it back to them to make sure you understand what they were trying to say. Managing conflict at work is all about empathy and communication! If you are confused, ask polite questions to clarify so that you can understand them better.
- Identify specific points of agreement and disagreement: When you both have told your sides of the story, have each person summarize the other’s perspective. Be sure to point out parts of the conflict you both agree on, and be mindful of your disagreements. When you’ve summarized something, it can be helpful to ask the other person, “Do you agree with that?” Make changes to your analysis until you both agree on the areas of conflict.
- Prioritize: Choosing your battles is an important factor in how to manage conflict. At work, it may be that there are numerous subjects you disagree about, This is natural! Once you’ve clarified exactly what the points of conflict are, the next step moving forward is choosing which point is the most important to resolve. This could be the most urgent matter when it comes to a project at work or the most personal conflict to one or both of you. Either way, agree upon your most important point of conflict to work through first, with the understanding that the others will be dealt with in due time.
- Make a plan and stick with it: Focus on how you’re going to move forward, with emphasis on the fact that you are part of a team and committed to working WITH each other. Set up future meeting times to continue the discussion, and to work through other points of conflict that you did not prioritize that first time.
- Celebrate and build on your successes: As you progress, be sure to point it out and celebrate it with the other person. Working through differences of opinion is challenging and takes a lot of maturity, so don’t take any small steps for granted! Give each other compliments on insights and achievements. Eventually, your hard work will grow into an ongoing line of communication, and you may just find yourself with a new ally and collaborator where once you saw only an obstacle.
Looking Towards the Future: Turning an Enemy into an Ally
Even when you’ve resolved a problem, it can feel like you’ve got a lasting rivalry that lingers in your mouth like garlic. Follow the three R’s; Redirect, reciprocate and rationalize.
- Redirect: Those critical feelings that are circulating need somewhere productive to go, so that you’re not still blaming each other for the issues at hand. Find a positive place to give your energies and attention.
- Reciprocate: Sometimes it just comes down to compromise, and you need to sacrifice something in order to repair a damaged relationship. The important part of this is that it is not just a business transaction (“I’ll give you this if you give me that”). If you want to get someone on your side in the long term, a gesture of goodwill that isn’t self-serving goes a long way to mend that bridge. An example of this might be staying after work to help the other person with their own project, or connecting them to someone who can help them just for the sake of it.
- Rationalize: Once those negative feelings have been given a channel, and the positive feelings have started to swirl around, it’s time to be clear about your relationship moving forward. Take the time to clarify the benefits and boundaries of your relationship with your new ally, and talk about some of the great things you hope to accomplish together in the future. It’s much easier to get someone on your side when they know you’re in it for the long haul, and won’t just drop them if they make a misstep again.
Learning how to manage conflict at work is an incredibly important skill that will help you not only in your career but in your life outside the office.
But the catch is, knowing when to ask for help is also vital to resolving conflicts, and your mental health.
So, when should you seek outside help for managing conflict in the workplace? Here’s a quick guide:
- When there may be legal issues involved, including allegations of discrimination or harassment
- When you see a pattern of issues that are recurring even with thoughtful, extensive discussions and meetings
- When conflicts resemble abuse or bullying behavior
- When the office has become a toxic environment, and further discussion will only trigger hostility
Keep yourself and your coworkers in a safe, healthy environment of cooperation and collaboration. Work through the issues you can on your own, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when something escalates beyond your abilities!